by Juliette Goodrich & Molly McCreaBy Juliette Goodrich

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) – With Monday’s approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, more employers, businesses, and municipalities may feel that it’s now time to require COVID vaccinations. The vaccine and the vaccination card that verifies the shots are both free. But some unvaccinated individuals are turning to fake cards to get them through the front door, but at a potentially terrible cost.

Cyber security experts told KPIX 5 that there is a booming black market that’s now available to anyone who owns a smart phone.

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“We have seen the numbers really increase,” explained Maya Levine. Levine is a security expert with a global cyber security company called Check Point.

Her firm used to see counterfeit activity exclusively unfold for sale on the dark web. But that is changing, especially during this pandemic.

“We’ve seen a move to much more mainstream applications like Telegram,” said Levine.

Telegram is a cloud-based free messaging app. With it, messages are heavily encrypted and can self-destruct.

“People are advertising these fake vaccination cards in big group chats on Telegram and making them widely accessible to a lot of people,” remarked the cyber security expert.

Check Point analysts saw a 257% jump in the number of sellers using Telegram to advertise fake vaccine cards to those “who don’t want to take the vaccine.” Over 2,500 groups are currently active. The phony cards are quick to find and cheap.

KPIX 5 easily located several points of entry, including TikTok and Instagram. All you need is a little cryptocurrency to buy them.

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“The average cost has now dropped to about $100 or $120 a card,” explained Levine,

But getting a fake card may cost you more than you think, according to cyber security specialists. If you’re sending payments in Bitcoin, it’s untraceable and you could be getting scammed. But if you actually get a real physical card, buyer beware.

“You probably gave real sensitive information away in order to get that. So, is it really worth it?” asked Levine.

Public health experts with whom KPIX spoke were horrified. The biggest cost may be to those who are actually vaccinated who may have weakened immune systems, making them highly susceptible to infections.

“The use of those fake cards is really a sad commentary on the people who would do that” remarked UC Berkeley’s Dr. John Swartzberg.

With evidence suggested that the power of the COVID-19 vaccines may be waning, those with fake cards may be putting anyone who has been vaccinated at an increased risk.

“It increases their risk of coming into contact with someone who is infectious. Because the people who are most infectious, for longer periods of time are people who are unvaccinated,” explained UCSF epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford.

Check Point told KPIX 5 that the bad actors behind this cyber push for fake cards are pretty global but certainly include China and Russia.

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The FBI warns that making fake COVID-19 vaccination cards is a federal crime. Violators face up to 5 years in prison or a $5,000 fine.

Juliette Goodrich